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Brand to Know: A Malaysian Line Making Rattan Bags Luxury

By Guan Tan

 
 

It's uncanny that we don't recognise beauty in the things closest to us. When it comes to our hometown, it requires a lot – perhaps many years abroad to open our eyes. That's the story of Sasibai Kimis, founder of accessories label, Earth Heir. 17 years abroad led her home, back to Malaysia. More than mere rattan bags and scarves, her brand Earth Heir could well be an autobiography of her realisation. 

Kimis was born in Ipoh, Malaysia, but quickly moved to Singapore, the United States, United Kingdom, Ghana, before she found herself in Cambodia. 

"I met with weavers who stopped weaving as they could no longer make a living from the trade, and I also met with families who had lost children to trafficking and children who were rescued from trafficking... I wanted to do something to help." Kimis started buying woven products from these families, and reselling them to her family and friends. Her small gesture to help eventually led to a business. 

Earth HeirA necklace, basket with lid, purse, and woven clutch – all handmade by native artisans Earth Heir collaborates with.
A necklace, basket with lid, purse, and woven clutch – all handmade by native artisans Earth Heir collaborates with.

Soon Kimis realised that the same issue looms large in her hometown, Malaysia. The public remains unaware of the wealth of crafts and skills native to the country. "In fact, I was ignorant of the craftsmanship and artisans who still remain in Malaysia." 

Fabric, rattan, and leaves weaving go a long way back in Malaysia's history books. Fabric weaving, for instance, dates back to the 1400s. It's similar to the long-standing culture of dressmaking in Paris, where history, generations of skilled artisans and exquisite materials define the trade. The only difference? These traditional skills are not celebrated in Malaysia.

Earth HeirA Malaysian artisan tying raffia on cotton yarns.
A Malaysian artisan tying raffia on cotton yarns.

Earth Heir now collaborates with craftsmen in both peninsulas of East and West Malaysia. "Our current network spans around 100 artisans spread out in Sabah, Sarawak, Terengganu, Selangor," she adds. 

Every region has its own technique, and they all have a place at Earth Heir. Batik, for instance, dates back to the 1920s. It's the art of decorating fabrics with wax and paint. Tenun – hand-loomed fabrics in a distinctive, colourful plaid pattern – has existed since the 1700s. 

Traditional fabrics aside, there are numerous methods to weaving. In the art of Anyaman, bamboo and rattan are stripped down and woven in a recognisable square-on-square style. Smaller items like mats and baskets take a day or two to weave. In other places, Mengkuang – or literally pandan leaves – are collected, dried, coloured and weaved into boxes, baskets, bags, and mats. 

"The Mengkuang plant takes up to two years to mature but grows quickly after that. The harvest and processing of the leaves for weaving take between one to two weeks. Then the weaving process can take from one day to two weeks depending on the item." 

Earth HeirThe art of weaving is often passed on to women in the family. Some families weave for a living, while others weave for extra income.
The art of weaving is often passed on to women in the family. Some families weave for a living, while others weave for extra income.

The artisans have to gauge the weather, for these pandan leaves will crack in hot weather. "Mengkuang can only be woven when the weather is cooler," Kimis adds. 

In the slow fashion trade, these people are crowned with the title 'artisans'. They share the same designation with staff in upscale Parisian ateliers. Kimis herself, mentions these artisans with due respect. 

To her, these products are luxury, "because it has the personal and cultural narratives of the maker." From the sowing of seed, harvesting, to the final touches, every step is made by hand. These skills are passed down generations. 

Earth HeirA handmade silk scarf amongst woven cases.
A handmade silk scarf amongst woven cases.

"Mainstream notions of luxury could mean mass-manufactured brand names." Majority of these luxury products as we commonly know are in fact, outsourced and machine-manufactured by cheap labour. There is nothing too romantic about these products marketed as 'luxury'. 

"[But] some are still handmade, reflecting beautiful artistry," Kimis muses. She is perhaps, referring to few dedicated ateliers of fashion, jewellery and accessories brands which stand by accountability, and still hand make their products. In that train of thought, a woven rattan bag could be compared to a Paris-made dress. 

"Something handmade of rattan by an indigenous weaver could mean luxury to one person and may be scoffed at by another." 

Yet, consumers' perception of luxury is changing. There's been an increasing trend for real, handmade products. "I think there is some amount of consumer fatigue with mass manufactured products which may feel like they have less soul." 

It's not a passing observation. Kimis has observed this trend in Earth Heir's sales reports. Last year, her passion project paid off. "I was finally able to pay myself a salary," she quips excitedly.